“Van Gogh, Isaac Newton: most of the geniuses and great creators were not tranquil. They were nervous, ego-driven men, pushed on by a relentless inner force and best by anxieties.”
25% of the US population are believed to experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime.
Meanwhile, a 2010 survey revealed that almost 8.2 million people in the UK were suffering from an anxiety disorder, accounting for over 18% of the UK population.
So is it any surprise that a book titled My Age of Anxiety became a New York Times Bestseller, and was shortlisted by the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize?
Its author, Scott Stossel scatters anecdotes: his own stories of panic, apprehension, and often near-crippling fear, amongst histories, quotations, and statistics. He explores changing attitudes to anxiety, and the plethora of treatments which have been trialled over the years.
Despite not existing as a diagnosis 40 years ago, anxiety has grown to be the most common form of mental illness, with diagnoses and anti-anxiety prescriptions rocketing since its introduction.
Despite his own diagnosis, Stossel, like many have before, and many will after, questions the validity of anxiety as a diagnosis. Is the rise in anxiety a sign that as a species, we are becoming more unnecessarily fearful and more unwell, or is our rising apprehension a logical response to the stresses of the modern world?
“We may look back 150 years from now and see antidepressants as a dangerous and sinister experiment.”
-Joseph Glenmullen, Prozac Backlash (2001)
Some might wonder if anxiety might have been created by drug companies, eager to make financial gain from our own perceived weaknesses. Yet anyone who has ever experienced anxiety’s crippling physical symptoms will know that the disorder is as real as any physical illness.
Stossel also questions whether anxiety might be helpful, in some ways. Many of our most celebrated creators and geniuses suffered from some level of anxiety, perfectionism, and neuroticism. A certain level of anxiety can be helpful: it might spur productivity, or help to avoid dangerous situations. A little worry might stop you from crossing the road without looking, or taking illegal drugs, or leaving a project until the last minute. But too often, anxiety doesn’t stop there. It has a tendency to paralyse, rather than to energise. A little too much fear, and we freeze, or we flee.
“Fear sharpens the senses. Anxiety paralyses them.”
-Kurt Goldstein, The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology (1939)
This crippling fear manifests itself in the fact that one fifth of the days taken off work by UK residents are thought to be due to mixed anxiety and depression – and this is only one form anxiety disorders can take.
Anxiety comes with a repertoire of physical symptoms, from sweating, to headaches, to stomach-aches, to nausea, palpitations, vomiting, and panic attacks. As a manifestation of our “fight or flight” response, anxiety is also exhausting.
According to a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School, the first presenting symptom in an astonishing 85% of adults with an anxiety disorder was a specific phobia as a child. The study, which surveyed a quarter of a million people around the world, indicated that anxiety metastasises.
“A child who develops a specific phobia – say, a fear of dogs – at age six is nearly five times more likely than a child without a fear of dogs to develop social phobia in her teenage years; that same child is then 2.2 times more likely than a child without an early dog phobia to develop major depression as an adult.”
(This was a particularly disheartening statistic for someone who as a child, was both shy, and petrified of dogs. More importantly, I would be interested to know: does overcoming the fear of dogs decrease chances of developing major depression? Is there hope for me yet?)
As for the cause of anxiety, we’re still not sure. There are certain chemicals in the brain which have been found affect an individual’s anxiety levels. A correlation has been found which suggests that high levels of a chemical called neuropeptide Y (which is found in higher levels in high-performing special forces recruits) increase an individual’s resistance to stress, and reduces their chance of developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
But there are still studies linking anxiety to environmental factors: parenting, childhood stress, and even an individual’s family history. It has been found that traumatic experiences can impact the stress and anxiety levels of an individual’s children, and even their own children.
Like many aspects of health, and personality, anxiety appears to be born from a combination of environment, genetics, and chemicals.
“Just because I can explain your depression using terms such as ‘serotonin re-uptake inhibitor’, doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with your mother.”
-Carl Elliott, The Last Physician: Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine (1999)
Scott Stossel’s exploration of anxiety is at once enlightening and inspiring, often self-deprecating, and entertaining. It captures the moments and feelings that many who have experienced anxiety will relate to, and helps them to understand the reasons they are the way they are. My Age of Anxiety is not a self-help book. But it could help.
“Anxiety cannot be avoided, but it can be reduced. The problem of the management of anxiety is that of reducing anxiety to normal levels, and then to use this normal anxiety as a stimulation to increase one’s awareness, vigilance, zest for living.”
-Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety (1950)
Want to know more about why anxiety makes you feel the way it does? Read my older blog post.
Featured image: Justine Warrington on Flickr